As grocery store shelves were emptied in the early days of the pandemic, Orange County Animal Allies faced an unexpected problem. The organization, formerly known as the Orange County SPCA, had long been supplying food banks with pet food through its No Empty Bowls program.
“Most of our donations are from overstock, directly from the warehouse,” says executive director Kevin Marlin. “The food shortages meant that we suddenly weren’t getting any donations. And in the meantime, the demand for food was skyrocketing.”
For weeks, Marlin found himself on an endless scavenger hunt, driving to one store after another in search of pet food.
“We’re used to getting pet food by the thousands of pounds, and I’d go into a grocery store and they would only let me buy a single bag,” he recalls with a laugh.
Though the supply issue self-corrected soon enough, the pandemic continued to affect the nonprofit. Spay and neuter services were shut down around the county, leading to a backlog and the looming possibility of a population boom. Therapy dog visits were brought to a halt at just the time they were most needed.
Elsewhere, nonprofits shifted their programs to address new concerns. Big Brothers Big Sisters of Orange County and the Inland Empire had to pause one of its mentorship models, that between high school and elementary students in an after-school setting.
“The majority of our families are hourly frontline workers,” CEO Sloane Keane says. “They already had so much on their plate. We couldn’t ask them to supervise virtual visits between their elementary school child and a high school student. So a new program was born out of necessity.”
The organization paired the high school students, who were now facing increased rates of anxiety and depression, with first-generation college students.
“These kids have really absorbed the impact of COVID,” Keane says. “Many have gotten part-time jobs or taken on the responsibility of childcare. After speaking with them, we found the biggest obstacle to them being successful was the emotional piece—someone to talk to about registering for classes and getting financial aid. The ABCs of navigating college.”
One major source of aid for many local nonprofits has been the Orange County Community Foundation, which partnered with St. Joseph Community Partnership Fund, Charitable Ventures, and OC Grantmakers to launch the Orange County Community Resilience Fund last March. By June, the fund had raised $4.3 million, which was distributed to 164 organizations serving the county.
“Basic needs such as health care, food, and emergency housing continue to grow for most of our vulnerable residents, while the nonprofits who serve them face significant revenue shortfalls and loss of volunteers,” says Tammy Tumbling, chief operating officer and executive vice president of Orange County Community Foundation. “It’s been rough. But we’ve been helping the community shift to a virtual world. I think a fundraising muscle has really been strengthened.”
OC Animal Allies has focused its attention on virtual pet therapy visits as well as keeping pets out of shelters by providing emergency medical services to low-income residents.
“We’ve done some online fundraising, and we’ve got a fairly loyal group of supporters,” Marlin says. “But we’re really hoping things get back to normal soon so we can move forward and get back to having in-person community events.”
The silver lining for Keane has been the collaboration that has happened between leaders in the nonprofit community and the increased volunteer interest in BBBS. “No one can move the needle alone. In the darkest hour, we had people reaching out wanting to help others, and that’s so cool.”
Tumbling adds, “There’s ample reason to believe that O.C.’s nonprofit sector will survive and thrive beyond the pandemic. But that vision depends on all of us.”